Artist Interview: Radnor and Lee – Americana folk duo with familiar faces, thoughtful songs

If you’re not yet familiar with the duo of Josh Radnor (Hunters, How I Met Your Mother) and Ben Lee (four-time ARIA-winning artist), then you are in for a treat. The duo released a self-titled album a few years ago, but their latest album Golden State due to release in June is going to be a treat for fans of the folk genre. I asked them a few questions about the project to get a sense of where they are musically and professionally.

The interview began in typical pandemic chaos fashion with some technical problems that had us all on the back foot. Then as I pulled out my carefully crafted interview notes, the enormity of the interview began to hit me. These aren’t just “emerging folk singers.” Radnor and Lee are two of the most successful entertainers I have ever talked to. *big gulp*

I had to get the lay of the land, asking a bit about other projects and background, but what struck me as important immediately was how polished both of these guys are in their media savy. I know that’s to be expected, but they were calm and articulate explaining the key tenets of the album. So what they’re bringing us on Golden State is more than just a few guys jamming on guitar and singing. This is a very thoughtful, intentional album with a purely musical spirit to it.

When I asked about the genesis of the band, both described a kind of “iron sharpening iron” way of working together. With the first album, Radnor said, they were “over explaining” some of the lyrics and stories. With Golden State they’ve allowed more of the GROOVE to take center stage. It’s more of an album about feel. Radnor added, “with this album, we’re learning what we can leave out.” There are still some amazing lyrics and thoughtful reflective moments, but it’s also music you can just listen to. The groove really is the focal point of the album.

Lee talked about how they were playing their new songs to live audiences in non-English speaking places where the audience was feeling it. That connection through music from two gifted writers meant that “something more” was happening. They carried over that energy from the live shows into a recording that is engaging, with moments that feel rather pop and others that feel nearly traditional.

I asked both artists how they saw this project fitting into the rest of their careers and fret not — neither plans on leaving other projects behind. As they are both successful in other realms (Radnor in acting, Lee in producing and solo career), the Radnor and Lee duo is just part of who they are as creative people. Radnor explained that his guiding philosophy for taking on a new project is, “will it be fun?” These two guys were laughing and having a blast just talking about this album, so it’s pretty evident this is a successfully “fun” endeavor for them. But as an addendum, Radnor mentioned that songwriting is not so different than his life as an actor; he makes his living telling stories. Once he explained that, the rest of the project made more sense. On a related note, Lee sees this project as a way of facilitating someone else’s creativity. In that regard, sharing the spotlight with Radnor makes him feel that he is made better by the cooperation. He explained that in his history of performance and creation, he has always connected with other strong personalities. The chemistry that Radnor and Lee have on the album reflects that outpouring of passion both bring from their separate careers into a unique project.

I asked the interviewer’s favorite question about the songwriting process, which is far less mystical in reality than it is in the minds of music fans. Get this; one of them has an idea and they work on it until it’s good. I almost threw the question away and moved on. Then Radnor said something that I absolutely loved — he said they get together and just catch up for a bit, then look at that moment to see if their are themes that emerge from their lives. He described a “side by side, chiseling away” process. Here’s where the interview really took flight for me as Radnor explained the sheer joy of the creative process in working with a friend to create something that is beyond what each could accomplish separately. He described them as “quality controls” on each other, making sure that neither accepts anything less than their best.

Side note: I asked Josh Radnor about his “musical influences” and, frankly, it’s everything one might expect from a folk fan. Dylan, Croce, John Denver, Barry Manilow, musicals, the harmonies of Peter Paul and Mary, and the Beatles all from family. Then, as he found his own taste, Cohen, Waits, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Beth Orton, Belle and Sebastian, Nick Drake, Damien Rice, so on, so forth. He mentioned some more recent influences in Cloud Cult, Jorge Drexler, and a wide range of non-English groove music currently. In his words, “melody and groove hooks me first.” Preach on, brother.

The next few questions I asked were about politics and religion, respectively. I was really curious about what it’s like to write a folk album in such a politically charged time. Radnor explained that they don’t want to participate in call-out culture, instead focusing lyrics on themselves. He said, poignantly, “what you leave out is political.” On the spirituality question, both Radnor and Lee emphasized the importance of taking the “jargon” out of spirituality. They encourage listeners to take on big questions without labeling it as spirituality or philosophy, per se. Just think they implore.

My favorite track on the new album is called “Greene Street.” I think others will agree as it has much more of a pop energy to it, including a soaring vocal element that isn’t as clear on other tracks. Radnor explained that he was shooting the TV show Rise, staying at a loft on Greene Street in New York City. One night Ben Lee was visiting (in town to shoot a video for “Doorstep”) and the song is basically a story of people they witnessed on that peaceful night. I’ll leave the lyrical analysis up to listeners, but Radnor confirmed that the song represents them, “really expanding our musical vocabulary.”

Honestly, that is exactly what Golden State represents to me. It is an expansion of what this duo can accomplish together. It shows development from their debut album and a willingness to explore other musical textures. I think a lot of fans of pop rock, folk, and folk rock music are going to enjoy this one. I hope that people will judge the album on its merits rather than the fame of the artists involved. It’s great if you pick up the album because you recognize these big name entertainers, but please give the art a sincere chance; I think a lot of people will enjoy relaxing with Radnor and Lee as we all seek to redeem what’s left of a hectic 2020.

Check out this video for “Simple Harmony,” directed by Sam Fragoso.

The new release date is June 19 and the album can be pre-ordered at the Floor Moon Records store and also at Bandcamp.

Image credit: Liz Bretz

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